These thirty-seven poems are eccentric in the true meaning of the word—off-center. Their titles, bearing the names of weeds, flowers, herbs, trees, are merely points of departure. “How hard can it be,” the poet asks, “to lie down in the green / mussed bed of the senses . . . In clover.” Whether it’s clover or rue, aspen or moss, the reader is invited into that rumpled but rich bed.
As nearly all our great poets tell us, it is by attending scrupulously to other that we best understand ourselves. So it is that in Melissa Kwasny’s tender, brilliantly described encounters with the vegetable world we see, in the midst of the most respectful observations of each beloved species—whether it be tree lichen, kinnikinnick, wild rose, human being, or rue—great depths of world and self knowledge. One benefit of such reverent scrutiny is the courage finally to ask, as Emily Dickinson herself might have asked, one of the biggest “what if’s” of all. For if, as in Kwasny’s “Shrinking Violets,” “the largest animal in the world is God”, and, later, “There are no words/ for my transgressions, only the space / between leaving one god for another, / a male for a female”, then, naturally, she may ask, “What if the sibyl called the voice of God her own?”
About the Author
A resident of Montana, Melissa Kwasny is the author of the poetry collections The Archival Birds (2000), Thistle (2006), Reading Novalis in Montana (2009), and The Nine Senses (2011), as well as the novels Modern Daughters of the Outlaw West (1990) and Trees Call for What They Need (1993). Her collection of essays is titled Earth Recitals: Essays on Image and Vision (2012). She is also the editor of Toward the Open Field: Poets on the Art of Poetry 1800–1950 (2004), and, with M.L. Smoker, the anthology I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights (2009, Lost Horse Press).
Thistle was the Silver Medal winner of ForeWord magazine’s 2007 Book of the Year Award for Poetry and the winner of the Idaho Prize. Christopher Howell, judging for the Idaho Prize, found Thistle to be in “the great tradition of meditative poetry.” Of Reading Novalis in Montana, reviewer Melinda Wilson commented, “Both Novalis and Kwasny insist that sentience of all that surrounds humankind is central to a full existence . . . Kwasny consistently relies on the marriage of man and nature to inform her understanding of existence.” Kwasny won the 2009 Cecil Hemley Award from the Poetry Society of America and the 2009 Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award. Reading Novalis in Montana was picked by Anis Shivani of the Huffington Post as one the top 10 books of 2009.
Thistle is the Silver Medal Winner of ForeWord magazine's 2007 Book of the Year Award for Poetry.
From ForeWord magazine
ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Awards were established to bring increased attention to librarians and booksellers of the literary and graphic achievements of independent publishers and their authors. ForeWord is the only review trade journal devoted exclusively to books from independent houses. Our unique awards process brings readers, librarians, and booksellers together to select their top categories as well as choose the winning titles. Their decisions are based on editorial excellence, professional production, originality of the narrative, author credentials relative to the book, and the value the book adds to its genre. If your books expand a reader’s world, introduce a voice society needs to hear, offer practical knowledge where none existed before, or simply entertain so compellingly that all distractions fall away, they should be submitted for the Book of the Year Award.
Reviewed by Paul S. Piper
Drumlummon Views (Fall 2006–Winter 2007)
"Sometimes I am permitted to return to a meadow," wrote Robert Duncan in The Opening of the Field. Well, in this case, I am permitted to visit a garden, and one so rich and unguarded that one barely escapes with one’s breath intact. Melissa Kwasny has done a marvelous job of creating just such a garden—as unkempt, impolite, breath-taking, awe-inspiring, and various as the landscapes of Idaho and Montana she calls her home and muse. And you, dear reader, are invited, and permitted, to enter it.
The irony of this review is that this is a book I had planned to write once—under the sway of Ronald Johnson, Jonathan Williams, A Modern Herbal; under the sway of my own studies of botany and natural history; my own confrontations and inter-penetrations of the self. But I didn’t, and it’s a blessing, because this book has been written so much more artfully than I could ever have imagined.
Melissa Kwasny, a poet who lives in Jefferson City, Montana, has produced a marvelous volume of poetry, and one that is marvelous in many ways. The volume entitled Thistle, in three sections, simply numbered, the first containing thirteen poems, the second two containing twelve each, is the winner of The Idaho Prize (selected by Christopher Howell) and has garnered praise from poets and writers as accomplished as Maxine Kumin and the late Patricia Goedicke.
"My allegiance is vegetable." And indeed it is. A good poet relies on attention and, through some alchemical method, translates that attention, that way of looking, perceiving, into our language. On one level it is always a failure, for what the poet truly perceives is outside of our language, and thus the poem becomes a translation. But translations can often surprise, and bring new material to bear. To a better-than-good poet, the attention is always an interaction that is to some level conscious. The poems in Thistle fit that description. They are, at their best, not translations of this attention, but the act itself.
Furthermore, the poems in this volume are investigations, not only into the realms of the poet’s self or selves, but into the identity of plants. An interweaving typically occurs in the poem, so the identity of the "I" or the "eye," (as in "Cattails"—"I watch you like a stranger. I watch me."—who is doing the watching?) is unclear. This deliberate displacement is not an attempt to distort, but an attempt to move beyond common boundary and distinction to a world of (often) chaotic or violent union."
Merely points of departure," a line used by Maxine Kumin in her back cover quote, is true in a sense, but belies the importance of departure, and its locus, which is always imbedded in the journey. In this sense, each poem is a palimpsest of sorts, the origin or departure riding shotgun with the journey. A word needs to be said here about the narrative itself. Much poetry today is some variant of what Ron Silliman calls the New Sentence—the narrative impulse is present primarily at the sentence level. This poetry of the New Sentence is often an interplay (sometimes fascinating, often not) of a number of texts or voices. Most poetry does this to some extent, but provides bridges that allow the reader to move from sentence to sentence without stopping cold at each waterway, and re-negotiating logistics. To Melissa Kwasny’s credit (in my mind), her poems hint at, and demonstrate, these structural rifts without obsessing or wallowing in them. The result is a poetry that propels the reader through hazardous and difficult terrain, over cliffs, through the open air into a new land, and finally at a destination, where one is often left alone, somehow magically back at the point of origin (or departure).
It is often difficult to ascertain if it is the plant or Kwasny that is the point of departure. Some of the most intriguing poems in this collection (poems like "Mullein" or "Rosemary") are those that lose time and identity in the shuffle. They bring to mind the mapping of subatomic particles (or at least my understanding of it—which can function at least metaphorically)—the result of which is an image conflated out of the bombarding particles, and those bombarded. The poems that are most interesting, to my mind, are those where the identity of the poet and the plant collide in such a way as to fracture each other, the result being a confusion as to which is which. Here the spiritual and/or psychological nakedness is exhilarating—"Crush me. I am susceptible / to the slightest storm."
Melissa Kwasny’s title Thistle is an interesting choice. Like a rose—a lovely flower ("their pink is compressed into fuchsia"), yet guarded by its thorns. My mother used to say you don’t get one without the other, and anyone who has lived and loved knows this is true. Roses, not thistles, are the royal archetypes of love (as William Carlos Williams writes in Spring and All—"The rose carried weight of love but love is at an end—of roses"). Roses are also a crucial commodity for floral shops and nurseries. Thistles, on the other hand, grow where the land is disrupted ("thistle, then thistle"). They are the unwanted, the intruders. I remember spending hours one day ripping out thistles, brought in by horses, from along a wilderness trail. "Is not a lack of love the thistle’s ploy/ and resistance?"
Some of the poems in this collection function almost solely to praise plants—"the mosses grow, overt, triumphant./ There is nothing to hide,/ white bristle, beard." Others give plants voice, song—"To cleave in all its forms. Cleft. Cloven" (from "White Clover"). In all of them the contact between the poet and plant defines both.
Melissa Kwasny’s sense and use of language is richly sensual, acutely attentive, and robust in its musicality: "The wick of fireweed gone to froth" or "a fume to force the bud of my heart." Examples like this are rampant thoughout the book, and it seems almost a crime to select some and leave out others, but a taste will suffice. Let it be said that this is a collection to wander through again and again. As in any garden, one will find the less obvious, less showy plants emerging after repeated visits. "Who would think to bring a sprig from / a language few speak now? Kinnikinnick."
Haunting melodies, rhythms that rise out of the earth to bask in sunlight or weather storms, images that are just so damn fine they don’t leave your memory. This book is about plants, a woman, and the places they integrate. Simply said, I urge you to visit your nearest bookstore and purchase this book. You will never regret it. And give one to every gardener and naturalist you know.
Reviewed by Haines Eason
The University of Montana English & Creative Writing Alumni Newsletter (Spring/Summer 2008 - Vol. 1, issue 2)
Melissa Kwasny’s recent collection of poetry takes as its cause a wide-ranging sheaf of Mountain West flora. The poems are Ovid-esque or Sapphic in aim and each begins quickly from titles drawn off the names of flowers, herbs, trees or other plants – Mullein is introduced as sickly sweet, persevering by a roadside; Iris keeps close an alluring indifference "unblossomed in silt." One finds in these poems the speaker grafted with plant, and memory wound with setting. Throughout the poems these two hybrid entities then mingle limbs in a sparse, vertical form that rapidly carries the reader a good distance from the point of origin. This method and presentation can sometimes startle. From "Iris":
My neighbor believes
that men must learn to be
on earth, and that
women must learn to be gods.
The tiger-striped eye
peeks out from its lids.
Why, it seems to ask,
or why not? I mean
what does it care
for the future of its tribe?
Again and again Kwasny shoots at lofty heights. Her concern for the future of humanity vis-a-vis its internal workings, and how these workings affect and also spring from our environment, is deep. She is fears reckless change so persistently that Thistle comes to represent an Ark in its litany.
And maybe memory is best served by lists—bare facts drive the mind to creative license. And, the list is a quick tool when daily the environment is siphoned of its creatures and plants—Spring arrives in mid winter filled with buds that, believing this to be their true time, are instead burned away when cold reasserts. We may more and more be required to remember the blossoms that came mid-winter when seeking them in Spring.
But would a quiet list of the flowers lost return them to the present or to memory? Maybe refreshing the senses by rejoining with the out of doors is the best way to keep a visceral memory honed. But whether Thistle is litany or no, in it Kwasny strives to, as Octavio Paz demands, present a poetry that is "a model of survival." It is not a compendium of odes; it is a collection of active transformations. Thistle is tight to its subjects in the mode of Mary Oliver, and at her best Kwasny is right there with Oliver’s simple but pithy and energetic meditations.
In an interview with Willow Springs, Kwasny states that she wishes to demonstrate the broad reach of all the countless minutiae around us: "in Thistle I’m working with a very tight image, tight focus . . . [t]he paradox is that the tighter the focus, the more it reveals an entire world." Each of Thistle’s poems is indeed an entire world—hermetic and sustained, the poems bloom outward from the small fact of their being to label themselves alive.
This review first appeared in issue 6/7 of Redactions, which was published circa mid-2006. Reviewed by Tom Holmes.
Melissa Kwasny’s Thistle (Lost Horse Press, 2006) opens with the Emily Dickinson quote, “The career of flowers differs from ours only in audibleness.” The quote provides a good frame for this collection of poems, for in Thistle, Kwasny is trying to hear the flowers, plants, & herbs by visually observing them, &, at times, by making associations to them through her own life. That is, she is projecting her emotions & life onto the personality of the vegetation & hoping that by comparison & by talking to the plant, she will acquire a metaphysical hearing or a hearing of the plant through meditation.
The listening I do in winter is simple.
I watch you like a stranger. I watch me.
These poems, at times, almost seem like they are a session of psychological therapy, where the plants acts as a psychologist, but that is only something I think about in reflection of the book.
While Kwasny often hears the plants through projection (& sometimes through smell, “a fume to force the bud of my heart”), the reader will hear each plant’s voice talk through the lyrical poems’ tones & rhythms. Each poem is for one specific plant, herb, or flower, & each poem has musical subtleties that reflect the plant’s voice. Thistle is a bouquet of plants speaking poems.
Soft as the deaf, as tightly
budded, even my name hides
under the tongue,
burrows into me like an infection.
Mallow. Cob. I am host
with a hundred ears. What is here
feeds, golden and small,
unable to fly away from me.
Still here in the stair-step fall
of light, I am infiltrated
with aphids and ants
that stick to the glue of my veins.
No one accepts what life offers.
Too common to thrive
by the roadside, soft as the roadside
dust that covers me, and thus,
get the poison meant for others—
the noxious, the invasive,
meaning your fear of cancer.
To thrive, you say, is monstrous.
Who can blame me that I prefer
poor soil, that I ask
for rolled oats without milk
in this land in love with plenty?
How long can you stay angry?
I rise out of the green
and obscure, a flamboyant stalk,
muscled, a landmark in the field.
Look around you. You will see
the brown shells of my last resistance.
Immune to what?
I am soft as exhaustion, soft as ash.